Spain, as reigning world and European champions, will justifiably arrive in Poland and Ukraine this week as favourites to retain their crown. Still, their dominance is becoming tedious, particularly as their approach is characterised by a cowardly obsession with risk-averse ball retention which renders their matches one-sided and consequently, skull-creakingly dull. Instead, what the game needs is for a youthful, swashbuckling side to supplant such Spanish supremacy and for many, that youthful, swashbuckling side is Germany. The Germans, you see, have learnt the lessons of their 5-1 humbling at the hands of the English to nurture a vibrant swathe of superkids whose skill and verve should provide the antidote to Spain’s sterile sovereignty. This would all be well and good if it wasn’t for the inconvenient fact that it is, for the most part, total bollocks.
It is a curious turnaround given the traditional British suspicion of Germans, with native affections ordinarily stretching only to embrace Jurgen Klinsmann and Boris Becker. Here at The Mambo, we never particularly rated Klinsmann (particularly as a coach) instead focused our admiration on Can, Gunther Netzer and Mehmet Scholl whilst never indulging the native schadenfreude so manifest in Germany’s dismal failures of 2000 and 2004 (the English really should know by now that in football, we seldom enjoy last laugh). Nevertheless, The Mambo most definitely views talk of Die Mannschaft as the continent’s greatest, most exhilarating outfit as at best, premature.
That said, there are however, clear factors influencing this unlikely Teutonic love-in. Undeniably, Germany are blessed with an exceptional generation of exciting footballers but few of them are expected to start at Euro 2012. Mario Gotze is arguably the continent’s finest young footballer and will hopefully enjoy a long and illustrious international career. Sadly, this summer he will likely start from the bench. There, the Dortmund playmaker will be in good company – hugely impressive Bayern Munich schemer Toni Kroos and Gotze’s future team-mate Marco Reus are expected to share his fate, possibly alongside elegant defender Mats Hummels. Consequently, Joachim Low seems poised to largely remain loyal to those who made such an impression at the last World Cup.
Nonetheless, although widely praised for their performances in South Africa, the Germans were a largely reactive counter-attacking team, with only clever midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and especially, Mesut Ozil providing imagination and technical polish. Pace, dynamism and intensity bristled through the squad but genuine quality was at a premium. Prosaic players such as ungainly stopper Per Mertesacker and the nondescript Sami Khedira were integral to 2010’s third-place finish and both have realistic claims to retaining their places at the expense of more cultured burgeoning talent, whilst forwards Lukas Podolski and Thomas Muller are also expected to start. The former is pacey, direct and in possession of a fearsome left foot yet is somewhat lacking in subtlety. Muller is a different type of player. In fact, he offers a unique threat; his reportoire provides outstanding movement and awareness but can on occasion seem lacking in basic technique and his ball skills are certainly weak for a player in his position. Veteran forward Miroslav Klose offers a similar enigma. Cerebral and the owner of a formidable international strike rate, the Lazio forward has however been significantly less convincing for much of his club career and although key for Germany, would in all probability not even make the respective squads of Spain or the Netherlands, nations generally accepted to be Europe’s finest, along with the Germans.
Defensively, full back Phillip Lahm has long been established among the world’s elite whilst goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is earning a similar standing for himself. However, the central defensive partnership is far less assured whilst Jerome Boateng, a centre back for his club, seems set to play at right back. Perceptively, great international teams are often less about crow-barring in the most gifted players than achieving balance and effective partnerships (as the tedious, decade-long Gerrard/Lampard debate so keenly illustrates) and whilst the likes of Podolski and Khedira may provide tactical pragmatism, there is little doubt that Germany would be a more aesthetically-pleasing side with Kroos and Gotze taking their places, for example.
This is significant as Joachim Low has sought to develop his charge’s control of possession following the World Cup but is doing so with many of the personnel best equipped to accommodate that shift sitting on the substitutes’ bench. Germany’s imperious form in qualifying superficially speaks of the seamless ease with which the transition has been managed but the 8 goals shipped over 2 recent friendlies with Ukraine and Switzerland suggests a team not enjoying quite the amount of control over games as Low would wish. Essentially, in attempting a shift towards a style with which the Spanish have become synonymous, they have shown how far they away from the Spanish in technical terms they are. Germany are unquestionably amongst the world’s strongest sides and certainly have the potential to dominate the international arena but their preferred 11 will largely consist of those outclassed by Spain 2 summers ago.
True, Germany were hugely impressive in dismantling disjointed English and Argentine teams in South Africa and the memory of those performances no doubt influenced the standings of The Guardian’s poll which shows that around 40% of its readers are tipping them for success this summer (more than twice the amount who are predicted Spanish glory). However, Argentina were topped only by France for their chaos and anarchy in 2010 whilst England were simply (and predictably) awful. Defeating the English, for a nation of any repute in the game is merely a fulfilment of their brief and should never be confused for a sign of ascendency. Such circumstances gave a false impression of Germany as that competition’s gunslingers. In reality however, their opponents played into their hands, offering the mirage of flamboyance which, when backed by the youthful nature of the squad, seduced many into accepting the fantasy.
Conversely, Spain’s series of single-goal victories presented the illusion of caution and their monopolisation of possession became viewed as a joyless, stifling device predicated on preventing penetration. This is nonsense. Inevitably, a defensive element resides in their philosophy but it remains a style founded on the pro-active desire to play on the front-foot, to create the play rather than sitting back, waiting for mistakes and breaking. The Spanish, along with Chile were the only side to practise such assertiveness, demonstrating a bravery absent in the Germans’ approach. What was most striking about Spain’s matches was the negativity of their competitors, who all retreated in abject fear and settled for the numbingly tedious approach conducive to the narrow defeats they so deserving received. At the end of a season in which defensive, counter-attacking football has broadly triumphed, the Euros will almost certainly see this trend continued and with teams aware of Germany’s speed in transitions, the space they were afforded 2 years ago will not exist. The test of Low’s charges will reside in their ability to break-down dour adversaries and surely logic dictates that their comparative technical deficiencies will see them less adept at this than Spain.
Obviously, fatigue as well as injuries to David Villa and Carles Puyol are enormous obstacles to Spain’s hopes in Poland/Ukraine but they still enter the tournament with comfortably the strongest squad and will once again be the team to beat. Germany arrive as the neutral’s sweethearts and with players rich in talent and potential but presently only Lahm and perhaps Ozil would make it into Spain’s strongest line-up. That is not to say they will not triumph, as evidently, they are serious contenders and perhaps the tournament’s most dynamic team but they will not arrive as the continent’s finest team and should not be treated as such. Come 2016, such favouritism may have foundation. For now, they are some way off.